Consultant advises Amherst to charge larger water users a higher fee

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2017

AMHERST — An environmental consulting firm thinks that homes, businesses and institutions that use more water should pay higher fees rather than the fixed rate that’s been the standard for about a dozen years.

The change would reduce water demand and raise money for long-term infrastructure projects, according to the report from Marlborough-based Tata & Howard unveiled at a Select Board Monday.

It’s uncertain if and when the board would act any proposal. Department of Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring told the board that he doesn’t advise any major changes until the water permitting through the state’s Department of Environmental Protection is complete in 2019, at which time it may mandate use of the so-called ascending block rate.

Still, Select Board Connie Kruger said she would be open to changes, noting that the current low, fixed rates aren’t serving the town well because the town can’t increase the robustness of the water system with the money being generated.

Written by Paul Howard of Tata & Howard, the report offers a method to promote water conservation and increase revenue derived from water.

“It is recommended that (the) town of Amherst revise their billing structure to be an ascending block rate and establish fixed quarterly charges.”

“Ascending block rates are what the state’s DEP supports,” said Amy Rusiecki, the assistant superintendent for the DPW.

Howard also suggests a water rate study to evaluate options and develop a rate structure that will fund current and future operating and capital costs.

Currently, Amherst charges $3.80 per 100 cubic feet of water used, no matter how much water a household or business uses. Under ascending block rate, there would be a higher per unit rate the more water that is used, essentially charging customers more for what is deemed nonessential water use.

This is already the practice in neighboring communities, including Hadley, Nortampton and Sunderland.

In Hadley, for instance, the first 499 cubic feet of water used is charged at $2.40 per 100 cubic feet, the water between 500 and 4,124 cubic feet is charged at $3.68 per 100 cubic feet and when in excess of 4,125 cubic feet the charge is $5.17 per 100 cubic feet.

Mooring said there is a risk that a block rate system would affect institutions and apartment complexes more than single-family homes.

Select Board Chairman Douglas Slaughter said that could disadvantage people who live in affordable housing.

In addition, some in the farming community have sought second meters, also known as irrigation meters, that would allow calculation of water that is not discharged back into the sewer system.

These second meters would require backflow prevents, isolated plumbing and associated permitting, Rusiecki said.

Water supply good

Meanwhile, an associated report indicates that the town’s water supply is in good shape.

Lindsay Strole, the DPW’s environmental scientist, said there is already some resiliency built into the town’s water system, which has five wells that pump water from the Lawrence Swamp aquifer and two reservoirs.

Amherst, she said, is allowed to draw 4.4 million gallons per day from underground aquifers, but only sees an average of 1.69 million gallons per day in actual usage. Amherst can also use up to 1.5 million gallons per day from each surface reservoir.

Mooring said the drought and large amounts of construction in town in 2016 put a stress on system.

To improve the resiliency, Mooring said four ideas are being recommended.

These include:

Automating well number 4 and the Baby Carriage water treatment plant so it can be online throughout the year, not just at peak water usage times, at a cost of $263,000;

Upgrading the Centennial water treatment plant so it can have the full 1.5 million gallons a day capacity, at a $2.5 million cost;

Expanding well number 5, also known as Rudy, so it can provide more water, at a cost of $410,000;

Developing a well in North Amherst or in Sunderland, which would be a basin of water and reduce reliance on the Lawrence Swamp, at a $2.28 million cost.

“We’ve been talking about developing wells in the north end of downtown since I got here,” Mooring said.

The cost would largely be driven by getting a full production well and the permit for it.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com